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Mr. Tony Colman (Putney) (Lab): I have two issues to raise in this Christmas Adjournment debate. They are disparate, but linked by the need for democratic accountability. I have requested Adjournment debates throughout the autumn period, but I have been unsuccessful in the weekly ballots.
I start by thanking and congratulating the Department of Transport on the lead role it took at the recent International Civil Aviation Organisation general assembly in ensuring the right of European states, including the UK, to set appropriate tax, emissions charging and trading regimes to control and reduce worrying greenhouse gas emissions from aircraft. I draw the House's attention to early-day motion 412 on aviation and climate change, which addresses that issue.
For my constituents in Putney, the Christmas break and the subsequent reduction in the number of planes landing and taking off at Heathrow airport over south-west London offers at least some partial relief from the everyday intrusion of annoying aircraft noise. Like many of my constituents, I have readand re-readthe Government's air transport White Paper, searching for signs that aircraft noise at Heathrow will be controlled and reduced and that local air quality will improve permanently in the future.
Unfortunately, as hon. Members will already know and acknowledge, despite there being a limit of 480,000 flights annually at BAA plc's largest airport, the
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White Paper makes it clear that the Government are investigating doing away with runway alternation, which at the moment offers some relief for those who live around Heathrow. My constituents understand and rely on the small but welcome noise reduction that that operational procedure allows and are totally against its removal.
The Department for Transport has also, I am informed, set up a team called project Heathrow, which is examining ways of facilitating and ensuring the construction of the proposed third runway to the north of the existing airport. That runway would in fact be a whole new airport, requiring substantial terminal facilities. Although tough legal, EU-based local air quality limits appear to make that proposal difficult to conceive, my constituents find it hard to understand just why the Department for Transport is acting as air quality consultants, airport logistical planners, ground transport planners and overall strategic consultants for the expansion of Heathrow beyond limits agreed through the planning process for terminal 5. Will BAA plc be sent the substantial bill for all that departmental effort? And can we be told exactly how much "project expand Heathrow" is costing?
Perhaps even more importantly, the close symbiotic relationship between the Department for Transport and the aircraft and airline industry that it promotes robs my constituents of any independent, unbiased oversight of the Department's work programme, often described by those civil servants involved as "delivering the White Paper". I suggest to my hon. Friend the Minister that there might be a case for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs taking over the policing of the air industry from the Department for Transport, to ensure the independence that my constituents would like to see in consideration of the expansion of Heathrow.
The White Paper is due for review during 2006. Will the Government promise to look thoroughly, perhaps through an independently led inquiry, at the need to strengthen the oversight and audit procedures, about which I am extremely concerned? As matters stand, the development of Heathrow appears to be unchecked and unchallenged.
My final concern on this first point is the thorny question of night flights. For many of those living in Putney, night noise from aircraft is a painful intrusion akin to nightly torture. There was a mass meeting in Putney Methodist church in November, attended by many hundreds of my constituents desperate to ensure that night flights are abolished. I congratulate Wandsworth council on organising that meeting. A similar meeting was also held in Battersea. I see my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Martin Linton) in his place and I know he was at that meeting, which was equally well attended and at which opposition to night flights into Heathrow was equally strong.
At the moment the Department for Transport seems unable to respond adequately to the need to begin to reduce night flights for entirely valid public health reasons. The ultimate authority on sleep disturbance and community noise exposure is the World Health Organisation, as the Department finally acknowledged in its most recent night flight consultation exercise. But
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the Department somehow managed to miss a seminal WHO quotation from the 1999 consultation document, "Guidelines for Community Noise", which states:
My constituents are not interested in the Department's latest highly technical wheeze to cram even more flights into Heathrow between the hours of 11 pm and 7 am. We want the Department of Health to intervene to ensure that WHO guidelines and policies on night flights are implementednot, as the Department for Transport indicates, some time over the next 30 years, but in the immediate medium term. A phased five-year withdrawal of night flights, starting with none between 11.30 pm and 6.30 am, would be a welcome move.
British Airways is running advertisements extolling the virtues of its new beds, in which passengers can sleep soundly. My constituents simply demand the same level of cosseting and look forward to a time when they, too, can enjoy a calm and restorative good night's sleep, courtesy of the air transport industry.
My second point is about Mr. Kassab Al-Rashid, who, with his wife, Amina Kadria British citizenattended an advice surgery that I held in November 2000. They have four lovely children, with a fifth on the way. Mr. Al-Rashid is a Saudi Arabian, who first applied for asylum in 1994, so his approach to me was made on the sixth anniversary of his asylum application. The decision should, of course, have been made by a Conservative Home Secretary before I was elected in May 1997, although I regret to say that my own Government seem to have been as dilatory as the previous Conservative Administration. Incredibly, 10 years on, Mr. Al-Rashid, who campaigns for democratic, Islamic reform in Saudi Arabia, is still awaiting a decision on his asylum application.
I hasten to add that earlier this year, 10 years after his initial application, he was granted indefinite leave to remain, outside the rules, but he is restricted and unable to travel throughout most of Europe, where most of the Saudi diaspora live, because the travel document for which he qualifies as a non-refugee, the Home Office certificate of identity, is not recognised by the majority of our European partners in the Schengen group.
Successive immigration Ministers have assured me that a decision on my constituent's asylum application will be made "soon". In frustration, I endorsed a complaint to the parliamentary ombudsman, who found the Home Office guilty of "serious maladministration". It became clear, too, as a result of the ombudsman's report, that there had been meetings and much correspondence between the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Home Office, and that it was, in effect, the FCO that was vetoing Mr. Al-Rashid's asylum. That is in itself a breach of the refugee conventions.
In a blatant example of Executive non-accountability, the Home Office brushed aside the ombudsman's adjudication. As some kind of recompense to Mr. Al-Rashid, the ombudsman suggested that the Home Office give accelerated consideration to a naturalisation application from him, and, in June, I met
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my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Mr. Browne), the Minister for Citizenship and Immigration, to press that compromise on him. Incidentally, I was honoured to be one of the two referees for Mr. Al-Rashid's nationality application. Mr. Al-Rashid's Home Office file resembles in bulk the collected works of Shakespeare. He has been investigated to within an inch of his life, including by the security services post11 September, and is as clean as a whistle. The "good character" requirements for naturalisation are comprehensively met.
As of now, my constituent has neither asylum, 10 years on, nor nationality, six months on, in the wake of one of the most damning ombudsman's reports I have read in my seven and half years as a Member of Parliament. My hon. Friend the Minister is unable to give me a timetable for the grant of nationality or asylum, and has only recently raised as a difficulty the supposed fact that Mr. Al-Rashid was illegally resident in the UK until the recent grant of leave outside the rules. I have taken legal advice on that point and I am told that it simply would not stand up in court, that Mr. Al-Rashid should at some much earlier point have been given temporary leave to enter, since it was then impossible for any asylum seeker to enter the country legally, and that the Home Office in all other respects has consistently treated Mr. Al-Rashid as though he were legally resident. I am also advised that the Home Office is now clearly in breach of the undertaking given by the permanent secretary to the ombudsman with respect to the nationality application. Mr. Al-Rashid, with pro bono representation, may seek judicial review of the Home Office's conduct of his case.
I would much rather have the matter settled out of court in a timely manneralbeit 10 years onso I urge my hon. Friend the Minister, even at this late stage, to move forward decisively. I hope that my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House will pass on that message. We must ensure that all applications for asylum and naturalisation are dealt with fairly and speedily, because 10 years is not acceptable, particularly as other more recent cases are being dealt with speedily and fairly.
We are in Iraq, now at the invitation of the UN and the Iraqi Interim Government, to ensure free and fair elections for a new democratic Iraqi Government. I hope that my constituent Mr. Al-Rashid is not suffering because of his same wish for free and fair elections in Saudi Arabia.
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